We are constantly reminded as we go around the state reviewing both professional and community theatre productions the exceptional talent that resides in New Jersey. Our proximity to Broadway, never more than an hour or two away, of course, is a big reason. A large percentage of Equity members call the Garden State home with the result that they work both sides of the river. In community theatre we are blessed with former and or retired professional talent who for economic reasons share their talent (and love for live theatre) via the community theatre stage (Translation: Their love of performing is so great they "work" with the only compensation... the applause of an audience).
We saw an example of this exceptional level of talent performing at the community theatre level this past Friday evening at the Black River Playhouse in Chester, New Jersey home of the highly respected Chester Theatre Group. The play, which will be performed until October 19, is The Moon Over The Brewery by Philadelphia based playwright Bruce Graham.
The Moon has been aptly described as "The little gem of a play...that no one knows." It is a charming, witty and warm "coming of age" tale of Amanda (Kristin Bennett) a 13 year old with a 160 IQ living with her waitress mother, Miriam Lipsky (Lauri MacMillan), in a small Pennsylvania coal-mining town. Amanda's intelligence (she's memorized the entire encyclopedia!) works against her in terms of having any friendly relationships with her fellow high school students. Her solution to this friendless world is to invent an imaginary companion. In this case, it is not Harvey the rabbit, but an impressive erudite man, Randolph (Lewis T. Decker) who, like Harvey, only she can see. Much of the fun comes in her often highly animated conversations with Randolph in which her mother and others can only hear one side. The biggest challenge to this insular world she has created comes with the arrival of the mailman....actually a "friend" of her mother, Warren Zimmerman (Jeff Knapp). Warren is a mailman, long divorced and with a strong romantic attachment to Miriam. They met at the diner where Warren eats lunch daily at 2:30 pm.
The title of the play Moon Over The Brewery comes from the name of a painting Miriam is presently working on. She loves to paint by night, literally... of moonscapes. Dark moonlit scenes require fewer paint colors, thus her hobby is more affordable.
The play was honored at the Philadelphia Festival Theater for New Plays, but many will consider it a charming, but fragile play. Here is where the magic of live theatre becomes apparent. This play works nicely largely due to the fact it has been entrusted into the hands of a highly experienced director, Jay Mills. Mills demonstrates that with excellent, spot-on casting and sharp directing, particularly in the challenging theatre-in-the round environment you can produce an enjoyable, memorable theatre experience. Montville's Barn Theatre patrons will recall his highly acclaimed production of Chorus Line this past Spring.
Mills' first challenge must have been the casting of Amanda...a 13 year old. His choice Kristin Bennett is a marvelously talented actress who beautifully pulls off the age challenge and the highly emotional demands of the role. Her interaction with Randolph is great fun. The imaginary Randolph is played in grand style by Lewis T. Decker returning to the Chester Theatre Group for the first time in thirty-three years. Decker, tall and slim, is an imposing figure in his various outfits that range from swashbuckler to samurai knight.
Miriam Lipsky is played by Lauri MacMillan, the lonely waitress who paints by night and desperately wants to be the mother her precocious daughter requires but seems to be failing at every turn. We are impressed with her warm, compassionate, performance.
Jeff Knapp, although a frequent Chester Theatre Group actor, is best known to the North Jersey theatre community as a highly sought after sound designer. His work can be "heard" in the current production of the professional Dreamcatchers Repertory Theatre Company in Summit's The Other Place (Read our review). He calls his audio contributions " aural stimulation." Jeff brings to the part of the mailman Warren Zimmerman a sensitive, caring quality that may be pivotal to the success of Moon Over The Brewery.
Supporting director Mills are: producer Penny Hoadley; stage manager Alice Regan Moynahan; lighting and set design/construction Ellen Fraker Glasscock; properties Cindy Alexander; costumes Mark Happel/Robert Jacobson's Scaramouche Costumes and the cast; lighting operation George Bierly; set construction Steve Catron; and running crew Allison Swanbeck.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio October 4, 2013
Moon Over The Brewery plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $20 with a $2 discount available for seniors aged 65 and over and students under 18. Tickets can be reserved by calling the theater box office at 908-879-7304 or by visiting www.chestertheatregroup.com.
The Chester Theatre Group is located at 54 Grove Street in downtown Chester, NJ at the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue.